What to Take to the Polls: ID, Video Camera, Audio Tape

The top watchdog of computerized voting prepares for the most hackable election ever.

| Wed Nov. 1, 2006 3:00 AM EST

About 90 percent of American voters will cast computerized ballots next week. In polling booths, they'll touch a screen that feels like an ATM machine. Or their absentee ballots will be tallied by optical scanners with their own software. By now, partly due to Bev Harris's work, we know that security holes in these computerized voting systems are big enough to drive a truck through.

Before 2002, Harris had little interest in computers or voting. Since then she has arguably led more investigations into computerized voting than any official and dug up more scoops on it than any journalist. In addition, thousands of vigilant citizens collaborate at a "workspace" she founded, BlackBoxVoting.org.

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Harris led investigations mentioned in the July/August 2006 story "11 Worst Places to Vote." She spoke to Mother Jones from the Black Box Voting headquarters in Renton, Washington.

MJ: Do you have any confidence at all in computerized voting?

BH: Some 92 percent of the people disapprove of the way we’re voting now. What we're all about is oversight. The bottom line is, we can't have any system that citizens can't oversee themselves, that they have to rely on an expert to tell them it's okay. We really have to have something—especially with vote counting—that your basic eighth grader can understand.

Mother Jones: How are you preparing for this election?

Bev Harris: We've been traveling non-stop and doing stuff in the field for the past three years. We put what we learned into what we call the "Citizen's Tool Kit," so that people can go out in the field and actually oversee [electronic voting].

There are things people can watch for. Take their video cameras or their camera and audio recorder, and take evidence that can't be spun. Stories, we learned in 2004, don’t do anything to create change, not much. Because we could have 10,000 affidavits about a vote that got flipped, and everyone still denies it. But if you videotape a 10-hour line, there's no denying or spinning it.

For example, the ballots in Cuyahoga when they did the recount were coming out in clumps—all these Bush ones, and all these Kerry ones, and one woman had a video and asked the officials why. They weren't thinking about what they were saying, and they said, "Because we counted them in private first," which is totally against the law. And three people have been indicted now. Video is the most important thing they can do.

MJ: How many citizens are keeping watch over electronic voting?

BH: BlackBoxVoting.org has about 3,200 active members [in August]. We feel like there's a lot of sites where people can talk politics, but we have a do-it-yourself upload thing, a citizens' workspace, so they can share their documents with each other. There was a million-hit day before the 2004 election.

If you see a problem, propagate it. Never put it in a funnel. Never turn it over to just one entity. Go with 10 different channels. Send it to the media. Write it up and send it to the elections office so it can be requested as a public record.

MJ: Have any of the security holes with voting machines been fixed?

BV: Yeah, there's the chopstick. [Laughs] Because you can hack the Diebold touch screens by getting into the case, Diebold drilled a hole into it and put something like a half a chopstick into it that does something that prevents people from getting in. [As if to say,] 'We had to drill a hole and put a half a chopstick in to keep people from getting into it, but it's a good machine, it's a good machine….' They constantly fix things, but it's a moving target. It's like that whack-a-mole game where you deal with this over here and somebody figures out something over there.

MJ: How do you operate BlackBoxVoting?

BH: We have a fulltime business manager, two fulltime investigators, and an office assistant. Most of [our funding] is citizen donations. We [haven't taken a lot of large grants because we] wanted to be something no one could manipulate. We have 26,000 small donors; the average donation is $59.

MJ: Norm Robbins of the Greater Cleveland Voter Registration Coalition said that while electronic voting security is more sensational and gets the most media attention, even more voters are disenfranchised by bureaucratic incompetence. Which do you think is worse?

BH: It depends. The issue is, we gotta get the system simple enough so that we can manage it and so that citizens can actually see what's going on, not just be told to trust. He’s right that there are huge problems with bureaucratic incompetence. It depends where you are in the country.

There are some places so sloppy that… take Arkansas where average turnout for a primary is 25 percent. But the first place we went in Arkansas had a turnout of 120 percent. It had been on the Secretary of State's website for a month…. We asked how. You know what their answer was? "I guess I sent the wrong number." I don't mean to be critical, but if your whole job is to be Elections Director, and there's only 4,000 people in the county….

There are all these problems. Some [elections officials] are just not up to speed. Some are incompetent. And some are also really crooked—Riverside County [California] is famous for it. The machines make a voter-verifiable paper trail, and they program them not to. There are some places that are scary. In Florida, the state laws are the worst in the country. Florida actually legislates that even in a recount it's illegal to count a paper ballot. That’s insane.

MJ: What will it take to create positive change on the problems with electronic voting?

BH: It's going to take a shift in public thinking. It's going to have to be unacceptable or dangerous for a candidate to not confront these problems, because they're going to lose their office. It's going to have to be a real evidence-gathering thing. When citizens do that, public officials change their behavior.

In California, for example, [the Secretary of State] is supposed to follow certain procedures, but he just took them off the Secretary of State web site. When citizens started saying, "Where are the rules?" he said he decided not to use them anymore. He commissioned a study that tells him his touch screens do not meet federal standards in any way, shape or form, and he certifies them anyway. So that's the thing that's got everyone scared. It indicates they're not afraid of not being reelected.

MJ: BlackBoxVoting reported that Diebold’s TSx-model voting machine has a curious feature, one that has meant that three in four voters don't check the paper trail after voting (the scroll is covered by an opaque brown door, making the paper trail if not undetectable, then difficult to find). A few months ago, you said of the design, "It's like if you ask a 6-year-old to do the dishes and he leaves gobs of food on the plates. It's almost unusable." Now how do you feel about paper trails?

BH: The prevailing view is that paper trail is not worth the paper it's printed on, because nobody uses it and nobody can see it. A study showed recently, Cleveland's paper trail doesn't even match the votes.

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